Coroner: State, local officials using different death reporting methods

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
York County Coroner Pam Gay speaks before the York County Heroin Task Force announces that it will now be governed by and an executive board as the York Regional Opiate Collaborative, naming Dr. Matthew Howie, of York City Bureau of Health, executive director at the York County Administrative Center in York City, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York County Coroner Pam Gay again clamored for clarity from the state Department of Health on Tuesday after the state's system of reporting deaths caused by the coronavirus didn't jibe with her official record.

With seven newly reported deaths on Tuesday, discrepancies between her own numbers and the state's have continued, something that has been exacerbated by the fact that the state includes York County residents who die elsewhere in its local tally, Gay said.

"Just to muddle the issue even more," Gay said, noting she's only been notified of three of the 13 York County deaths related to the virus since the outbreak began.

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If someone from York County were to die in a Dauphin County hospital, that usually would be considered a Dauphin County death.

But the state is instead reporting the deceased's county of residence, which has left coroners questioning their death tallies, because if a York resident were to die elsewhere, they would never be notified — yet the state is still counting it as a local death.

"That's how we've been doing it since the beginning," said Health Department spokeswoman Maggi Mumma.

While the state's method wouldn't skew statewide death totals, it has been problematic for coroners who want to stay on top of virus-related deaths in their respective counties.

The Department of Health has attempted to be more transparent during the pandemic, such as releasing hospital data and, most recently, an interactive map showing cases by ZIP code. 

Even so, the frustrations expressed by Gay on Tuesday are just the latest since the outbreak began. 

Earlier this month, confusion ensued after Gay was left in the dark as to what hospital or nursing home virus-related deaths had occurred .

The problem arose due to the state and coroners having different interpretations of state law.

The state Department of Health has deemed virus-related deaths, like those from all infectious diseases, to be natural deaths. Therefore, under state law, those deaths need not be referred to coroners.

But that directly contradicts statutes governing what coroners need to investigate,.

Under that state statute, coroners need to investigate deaths "known or suspected to be due to contagious disease and constituting a public hazard."

More recently, Gay discovered the state had also been categorizing "probable" virus-related deaths in its death toll numbers.

That has led to death tallies at the state level changing without notification.

For example, one day the state could report that 13 deaths had occurred in York County. But if a test of one of those who died came back negative, that number would change to 12 without any sort of notice given to coroners.

“I don’t know that (coroners) necessarily are in a disagreement with what the Department of Health is doing," Gay said. "We just want some clarification and transparency. There’s no clear communication between us right now." 

As of noon Tuesday, there were 517 confirmed coronavirus cases in York County, with 13 virus-related deaths.

Statewide, there have been 34,528 confirmed cases and 1,564 deaths.

Reporter Ron Musselman contributed to this story. 

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